Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

2020 #29
Tim Miller | 128 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA, China, Spain & Hungary / English & Spanish | 15 / R

Terminator: Dark Fate

“I’ll be back,” the Terminator famously said in The Terminator, and he has been proven right — again and again. And again. This may be a franchise about time travel, but it’s us who seem to be stuck in some kind of time loop, because this is now the third attempt at creating a direct sequel to Terminator 2. For those keeping score, the first was literally titled Terminator 3; then there was TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which picked up from T2 (pretending T3 didn’t exist); and now this ignores them both. It also ignores the other attempts to keep the Terminator franchise alive: Salvation, which actually continued the storyline on from T3 (albeit with an entirely new cast); and Genisys, which attempted to be both a sequel and a reboot.

As well as being the third Terminator 3, Dark Fate is also the third attempt to start a new trilogy (Salvation and Genisys both arrived with such lofty plans), and is now the third to see those plans aborted after poor box office. Salvation made just $125.3 million at the US box office and $371.4 million worldwide — big numbers, but not when your movie cost $200 million. Hence starting again with Genisys — but that was an even bigger flop at the US box office, taking just $89.8 million. Worldwide, it took a respectable $440.6 million (more than Terminator 3, even), which, off a lower budget of $155 million, is pretty good. But US studios continue to struggle to see beyond their own borders, and so that trilogy was abandoned too.

Both of those movies tried something new for the franchise. Salvation took us into the Skynet-ruled future, something the previous movies had only had as a threat to be averted. Genisys played more with the idea of time travel, taking us back into the timeline of the first movie, but different. Now, Dark Fate explicitly wipes out previous continuity, beginning with a flashback that directly follows on from T2 but sets us on a new path, introducing new heroes and villains, alongside the return of the original Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton (who was written out of T3 and recast in Chronicles and Genisys). Surely that would solve the box office problem? No: it took $62.3 million in the US and just $261.1 million worldwide, the worst yet by any measure.

She be back

Box office is not indicative of quality, of course, but audience reception of Dark Fate hasn’t been any better than previous attempts to continue Terminating: if you look at IMDb scores, Dark Fate has 6.2 to Genisys’s 6.3, while Salvation has 6.5. None of them are stellar, but all are solid; and, with hindsight, suggest the producers should’ve just stuck it out with one of the previous versions. Indeed, I think trying to sell Dark Fate as “another restart” probably just put more people off. The Terminator franchise has become such a tangle of forgettable messes, aborted plans, and “this is a sequel to X but not Y”-type ventures that, for your average cinema-goer, it’s easier to just ignore it than engage with what counts and what doesn’t.

All of which is to review the film’s box office performance rather than the movie itself. But I’m more or less with IMDb voters on this one: the behind-the-scenes story is almost more interesting than the film itself. Not that it’s a bad movie, but it’s little more than a serviceable sci-fi action-adventure flick, hobbled somewhat by a palpable sense of desperation to emulate the cultural impact and success of Terminator 2. That’s the real reason none of these continuations have been allowed to stick: because none of them equalled T2. Such a goal is a hiding to nothing; a fight you stand almost no chance of winning. T2 is regarded as a Great Movie; a seminal entry in the sci-fi and action genres; influential and beloved. Thinking you can equal that is like making a gangster movie with the view that “if this isn’t regarded as at least equal to The Godfather, I have failed.” You’re setting yourself up to lose. In Terminator’s case, they’ve had that loss three times in a row, with ever-diminishing financial returns, to the point where anyone setting out to make Terminator 7 is going to be looked on as mad. What do you do with it now? You can’t reboot it again! But nor can you reasonably make a sequel to any previous version. They have, literally, killed the franchise. (Well, they probably haven’t — someone will almost inevitably continue it someday — but it’s going to be harder than ever to persuade anyone to finance that.)

He be back

Perhaps some form of spin-off will be seen as the next thing to try, but — spoilers! — that’s basically what Dark Fate tries to kickstart. Sure, Schwarzenegger and Hamilton are here, and the events of T2 are directly referenced and continued; but Skynet is no more and there’s a new war to fight. On the bright side, with a new future, a new threat, and an apparent aim to transition from old characters to new ones, it doesn’t feel stuck on the merry-go-round like the previous sequels did. It’s at least trying to move on in a (slightly) new direction, rather than just rehash the familiar. The problem (and it has been a big problem for some fans) is that by abandoning certain key tenets of the franchise (John Connor being the ‘Chosen One’; Skynet), it doesn’t feel so much like Terminator 3 as Terminator: The Next Generation. But, hey, that worked for Star Trek! After so many sequels that tried to find new angles to rework familiar bits and bobs, isn’t it about time someone tried something new, even if it’s in a very similar mould to what came before?

Well, it’s a moot point now, because Dark Fate Part 2 ain’t happening. We can only take some small measure of solace in the fact that it isn’t as open-ended as Genisys was; and that, whatever any other filmmaker tries and fails to achieve with this franchise, we’ll always have Terminator and T2.

3 out of 5

Terminator: Dark Fate is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from this weekend.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day 3D (1991/2017)

2018 #103
James Cameron | 137 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Terminator 2: Judgment Day 3D

When I’ve previously reviewed 3D versions of films I’d already seen in 2D, I haven’t given them a new number — so why did T2 3D merit one? Partly it’s a ‘feeling’ that comes from it not being the original version. Most of those other re-watches were films that had a 3D release concurrent with their 2D one, but T2’s is a years-later addition. Still, that’s a thin justification. More importantly, however, they chose to perform the 3D conversion on the film’s theatrical cut, which I’m 95% sure I’ve never seen. The extended Special Edition was first released in 1993, which is before I first saw the film, and some of the scenes that have most stuck in my memory are from the longer cut. Is it shorter enough, and therefore different enough, to warrant a new number? Not sure. But combine that with the new 3D and I thought, yeah, that’s pretty different all round.

The film itself… well, it’s an action/sci-fi classic, isn’t it? But I needed to rewatch it to remember how good it is — I left it off my 100 Favourites a couple of years ago because I decided it was on the long-list just because you’d expect it to be there; but, rewatching it, I realise I do agree with the consensus on its greatness. The most interesting ideas in T2 aren’t what it contributes to the series’ sci-fi mythology (though a liquid metal robot is pretty neat), but how it chooses to develop its characters. The T-800 now being a good guy is the obvious one, but check out the humans: sweet innocent Sarah Connor is now a hardened military-vet-type locked up in a mental institution where she rails against the system; and her son, destined to become the great leader of humanity, isn’t a hero in waiting but instead an irritating juvenile delinquent brat. It’s these extra dimensions, not just the sci-fi and the action, that make T2 such a great film.

“Get away from him, you bitch!” ...no, wait, wrong Cameron movie

That said, I think there’s an argument to be made that T1 has withstood the test of time better than T2. The original film is a grounded sci-fi thriller, its low budget working in its favour to emphasise those qualities: it’s fuelled by both big SF ideas and the grittiness of its present-day setting. T2, on the other hand, is pitched as an action-and-effects blockbuster — it was the first movie to cost more than $100 million (according to some reports, anyway) — but in that respect it’s been continuously surpassed by numerous other summer spectacles in the intervening decades. As I said, there are other reasons it endures, but I think on balance I might prefer the first movie.

And talking of preferences, I definitely prefer T2’s extended cut to the theatrical one. There are numerous nice grace notes added to the longer cut, but it really comes down to one scene: the sequence where they take the chip out of the T-800’s head and Sarah considers destroying it, which includes the famous mirror shot. For me that’s one of the most memorable scenes from the entire film. It’s both a good scene in its own right and it’s neatly mirrored in the ending, when the Terminator makes Sarah lower him into the molten steel. I’ve always found it an odd idea that it wasn’t always there, and I continue to feel that way. The film seems incomplete without it.

Now, the 3D… As you might expect from a genuine 3D advocate like Cameron, a lot of the effect is quite subtle — it’s aiming for realistic spacing, not an in-your-face exaggeration of depth. That kind of subtlety is arguably a reason a lot of people feel 3D adds little, because its benefit isn’t obvious. Heck, sometimes you don’t even notice it’s there. Ironically, that’s sometimes amongst the best 3D, but you might need a direct comparison with 2D to notice it. Put a good subtle-3D shot against its 2D counterpart and suddenly you’re aware of the natural awareness of shape and depth the extra dimension is adding. Now, T2 3D is not a prime example of this — it’s a film that was originally shot and designed for 2D, after all — but it does have moments that I think demonstrate that kind of effect. And, at other times, the 3D is much more obvious; mostly during big action set pieces, as you’d expect.

Oh, if he only knew how many times he'd be back...

The big downside is that they felt they had to apply a hefty dose of DNR before doing the 3D conversion. I’m sure there are reasons why film grain would get in the way of a conversion, but sometimes the DNR is too heavy-handed. It’s never at the level of the infamous Predator Blu-ray, where everyone looked like a slightly-melted waxwork, but there are times here when people seem to have been formed from smooth plastic rather than the natural pore-covered texture of real skin. How much this matters is a case of personal preference, but there were one or two times I did find it distracting — the meeting between Sarah and Dr Silberman, for instance, where the DNR has smoothed his skin so much that it looks like he’s been de-aged. If this was just on the 3D version then, hey-ho, that’s a side effect of the process, but I believe the same scrubbed version has been put out as the film’s official 4K restoration. That’s very disappointing.

So, this is in no way my preferred version of the movie; but it’s such a great film anyway, and this re-watch has reminded me of that, that it can be nothing but full marks.

5 out of 5

The Terminator (1984)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Terminator

Your future is in its hands.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 107 minutes
BBFC: 18 (1984) | 15 (2000)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 26th October 1984 (USA)
UK Release: 11th January 1985
Budget: $6.4 million
Worldwide Gross: $78.4 million

Stars
Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan the Barbarian, Predator)
Michael Biehn (Aliens, Tombstone)
Linda Hamilton (Children of the Corn, Dante’s Peak)

Director
James Cameron (Piranha Part Two: The Spawning , Avatar)

Screenwriters
James Cameron (Rambo: First Blood Part II, Strange Days)
Gale Anne Hurd

Based on
not Harlan Ellison’s The Outer Limits episode Soldier. (Ellison sued production company Orion, who settled out of court for an undisclosed sum and an acknowledgement in the film’s credits. James Cameron disagreed with this decision, and still does.)


The Story
Two time travellers from a future world beset by a war between ruling robots and a human resistance arrive in Los Angeles 1984 to find the mother of the future human leader, Sarah Connor — one to kill her, one to protect her.

Our Heroes
Sarah Connor is just an ordinary young waitress in ’80s L.A. who suddenly finds herself marked for death by an unstoppable robot from the future. Her only hope is Kyle Reese, a soldier also from the future, sent back in time by Sarah’s unborn son to protect her.

Our Villain
In the Year of Darkness, 2029, the rulers of this planet devised the ultimate plan. They would reshape the Future by changing the Past. The plan required something that felt no pity. No pain. No fear. Something unstoppable. They created… the Terminator.

Best Supporting Character
Paul Winfield is the kind, dryly humorous police lieutenant who lands the tough job of protecting Sarah Connor. He thinks Reese’s story makes him mad (who wouldn’t?), but then he comes face-to-face with the Terminator itself…

Memorable Quote
“Come with me if you want to live.” — Kyle Reese

Memorable Scene
Having learnt Sarah Connor is being held at a police station, the Terminator walks in and asks the desk sergeant if he can see her. He’s refused, but told he can wait. Sizing up the room, the Terminator informs the sergeant: “I’ll be back.” And he is — in a car.

Memorable Music
Composer Brad Fiedel’s main theme is surprisingly catchy, I find, as well as now being rather iconic. Some of the rest of his score has dated terribly, though.

Truly Special Effect
Despite being a relatively low budget production, The Terminator is stuffed with memorable effects work. The stop motion and models used to depict the future war look fantastic even when placed alongside live-action elements, but best of all must be the full-size Terminator endoskeleton from the climax. The prop weighed a ton and was hard to manoeuvre on set, but it looks fantastic.

Letting the Side Down
For all the brilliant effects, the model of Arnie’s head used for when his robot eye is exposed is… less than convincing. Apparently it took six months to create. Maybe during all that time they forgot what Arnie looked like…

Next time…
Seven years later, Cameron revisited the Terminator universe for one of the most acclaimed action movies and sequels of all time, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Then Cameron was done, but where there’s a popular film there’s money to be made, and so twelve years later Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines turned up. It was less remarkable. Since then, there have been multiple attempts to exploit the IP: TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles rewrote continuity and was well regarded, but was nonetheless cancelled after two seasons; Terminator Salvation attempted to kickstart a new trilogy but didn’t go down that well (and is probably best remembered for star Christian Bale’s on-set rant); and Terminator Genisys attempted to start another trilogy by bringing back Arnie and revisiting events from the first film. It didn’t do well either. Now, Cameron is about to get the rights back… and intends to start another new trilogy. We’ll see.

Awards
3 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Writing, Make-Up)
4 Saturn Award nominations (Actor (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Actress (Linda Hamilton), Director, Music)

Verdict

When I published the list for my 100 Favourites back in 2016, I tried to remove anything I felt was being included on autopilot — films that are such accepted greats that I wasn’t considering how much I actually liked them. Eliminated as part of that were the first two Terminator movies. I liked them a lot, but I hadn’t bothered to watch them for years — they seemed a definite case of films I thought should be there rather than ones I was really passionate about. Rewatching the original for the first time in well over a decade, I realised pretty quickly that I’d made a mistake. The more mediocre movies you see, or even just “quite good” ones, the more you realise how perfect the great ones are — and The Terminator is a great movie. It’s full of superb sci-fi ideas, well-directed action sequences, quotable dialogue, and memorable characters — not least the instantly iconic title role.